Reader asks: I had an affair, and it’s not my fault.

Reader Asks:  I have had an affair and was caught a few years ago. My husband and I are together and he is a wonderful man. While I am very remorseful, I am having a lot of trouble truly accepting the blame. In fact, I place much blame on the other mans wife! I know it’s wrong. she was obese, mean and lazy. Since the affair she has lost 50lbs, gotten a job and changed in a lot of ways. He pursued me aggressively and I blame her for “breaking” him. Even worse, I’m slightly obsessed with watching them on social media, which just increases my bitterness. 

It’s been years, I’ve had personal therapy (apparently I have Daddy issues) and my husband and I had therapy immediately after the affair. We tried counseling again recently and quit because we both felt it was too painful.

 I know my blame is misplaced, but I don’t know how to change and move on. I feel trapped. Any advice, or books that might help?

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Dear Sorry-Not-Sorry,

What a complicated scenario.  I give you a lot of credit for being so willing to admit some pretty tough stuff- the fact that you don’t really take accountability, the quitting therapy because it was too painful, the watching the other couple on social media…

I would like to make a few observations that may be helpful to you as you stretch yourself to “change and move on” as you said.  First, I want to clarify something for you that I discuss in therapy quite frequently with both teens and adults, which is this very simple concept:  You are responsible for your behaviors, and others are responsible for their behaviors. 

Sounds obvious, but this truth is not always on the surface of awareness.  For example, if I scream my head off at my two-year old for coloring crayon all over the wall, I may  be tempted to wrongly think, “He made me scream and carry on.  I mean, look at all the blue marks on the wall!”  Instead, appropriate ownership for my behavior would warrant a thought process like this, “He colored all over the wall, and that is totally on him.  I became a psycho, and that is on me.”  ….Do you see where I’m going with this?

Now, I would challenge you to consider, what is it about YOU that, when faced with this guy pursuing you and trash-talking his wife, caused you to think:  “Ok, sign me up!  I mean, I’m not doing anything wrong since this guy’s wife is fat and mean” instead of thinking “Yes, this guy’s wife may be overweight and diminishing, but that doesn’t preclude me from upholding my vows to remain monogamous to a man that I care about, and who would be devastated if I betrayed those vows.  And I don’t want to devastate anyone I care about or tarnish the sense of marital intimacy that we have, so I’m gonna say no.”

Importantly, my challenge was not, “what is it about the situation, your relationship, the other guy, or his wife.”  I asked, “what is it about you.”  You may answer that question with any number of qualities: my insecurity, my wanting to feel desired, my selfishness, my loneliness, my boredom. But I would suggest that you also consider the following:  You may also have a touch of narcissism. 🙂  (If I think something might be helpful, I don’t side-step or sugar-coat it, even if it’s hard-hitting.  But I’m not above a smiley-face.)

Here’s why I whipped out the “narcissism” word here: Narcissism is marked by, among other things, 1)  blaming others for your own wrong-doings (you candidly admitted to this.),  2)  the need for superiority (your attitude toward the wife?), 3)  sensitivity to criticism (Is his staying with his wife a difficult rejection, hence driving your to bitterly peruse their fb pages?), 4) difficulty with empathy (where was your husband’s feelings in all of this, especially since his betrayal is something you alone can take ownership of? I would have liked to know more about your definition of “remorse,” although I do know that regretting the pain you caused someone else necessitates acknowledging that you caused someone pain.), 5)  a sense of entitlement (do you feel as if this man’s affections are rightfully yours, and this is what is really fuelling your admitted bitterness toward his wife? Tough question to answer, and requires a clear mind and deeply honest reflection.), 6)  and relationships that are superficial and more about what the other person can do for you than about truly considering the other person (Did you really like this guy, or just enjoy the idea of being wanted? Do you truly consider your husband’s feelings and needs, even when doing-so has nothing to do with your own image or identity? More tough questions.).

I am not about to diagnose you with only knowing a few sentences about you and a snapshot of your life, but I will say that this possibility is something to think about and discuss in therapy. Just in case it fits, you should know that people commonly adapt narcissistic traits as a result of being put on a pedestal (never being held accountable to consider others, made to feel superior, entitled, better-than, etc.), being made to feel inferior/worthless (in which case narcissistic tendencies are compensatory), or, most-commonly, a combination of each extreme (this relationship whiplash creates a mission to be admired/approved-of).

I only say that because your “daddy issues” may have something to do with the fact that empathy, personal ownership, and consideration for others may not be your strongest qualities.  Did you mean “daddy issues” because you never felt considered by your dad, and now you are seeking validation through subsequent relationships?  Did you mean “daddy issues” because your dad put you on a pedestal and made you feel entirely special, and now you seek that out in every future relationship?  Again, just something to think about.

So an alternative to this narcissism thing is that you uniquely experience seemingly-narcissistic qualities when it comes to your husband because you have been hurt by him in some significant ways. In other words, you don’t have a hard time feeling remorse for hurting people in general or having empathy for people in general, but when it comes to your husband, resentment or hurt prevents you from extending him these courtesies.  I considered this scenario because it appears that you have a great deal of protective empathy for the other man, which is being manifested in your anger at his wife for “breaking him.”  (Again, consider the “he is responsible for his actions; She is responsible for her actions” rule, because believe-me, the man is not the sympathetic, wounded character he appears to be from your vantage point.  He is a big boy who made the decision to pursue you instead of either respectfully divorce his wife or work on his marriage.  And that is on him, not on her for “breaking him.”)  Anyway, you know what I am going to say about this:  Explore the possibility that you have an empathy-block specifically with your husband in individual therapy, and then, if you come up with some legitimate resentment (or transference resentment.  As in, you hate your dad, for example, and now in middle age your husband is reminding you of your dad and you are having a reaction to your husband that has been transferred from your dad?  Just for example.), bring it up in couples therapy.  Yes, get your butt back to couples therapy.  (Did you think I wasn’t going to say that?)

You mentioned ending couples therapy because it was too painful.  Yes, therapy is vulnerable and forces people to humbly acknowledge tough truths about who they are and stretch themselves to empathize with perspectives that otherwise would have been foreign to them.  Based on your ending therapy out of discomfort, I can’t help but wonder if you and your husband have ever been truly vulnerable with one-another, humbly shared the HARD pain, fears, and limitations, and held the other person’s super-vulnerable pain, fears and limitations without judgment.  If this sounds like crazy-talk to you, then again, I would encourage you to explore the possibility that you have adopted a superficial/distant relationship style (due to “daddy dynamics?”) that is consistent with narcissism AND with unacknowledged resentment. I would challenge you to try couples therapy again (imago therapy would be especially helpful) with a renewed willingness to do tough stuff.  Otherwise, you will have squandered what could have been a meaningful connection with your husband as well as an opportunity for personal growth through this meaningful connection.

So, Sorry-Not-Sorry, it is clear that you want to get rid of this misplaced anger.  I also hope that it is your goal to improve your own thinking and strengthen your relationship (because without accomplishing these, there will be no “moving on,” but there will be a bunch of sitting on Facebook, bitterly checking out pictures of some-guy-from-your-past and his weight-fluctuating wife.)

Therapy can help you to understand why and how you think the way you think (I suggested some possible explanations in this post), and can point out areas for potential growth (I suggested some areas for personal growth too.). There are also many books on practicing compassion, empathy, self-accountability, overcoming entitlement, etc. But therapy and books cannot make a person legitimately gain the kind of empathy that melts away entitlement, the kind of compassion and authenticity that leads to meaningful connection, and the kind of accountability that melts away anger toward others.  Those behaviors will be up to you to intentionally practice, and, unfortunately, there is absolutely no getting around that.

I do offer to you this old and not-even-that-clinical book that I love reading and re-reading.  Not because the author writes about affairs or anger or narcissism or anything like that, but because he gives a long definition of what real love is, in a way that I completely respect and that I have not read in any other book.  It might be worth a read.

Anyway, best of luck, Sorry Not Sorry, with your personal and relationship journeys ahead,

Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

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Be sure to check out my Facebook page, and feel free to contact me with any questions about parenting, relationships, or psychology in general.

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